Saturday, November 30, 2013

India and the present crisis

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Saturday, 30 November 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
Description: rintDescription: DF
The BNP finally said it. After remaining quiet on India’s role in the current political stalemate, BNP’s Acting General Secretary pointed at New Delhi for backing the ruling party in its current conflict with the opposition BNP. Another senior leader did not mince with words and directly accused India for backing the Awami League Government against a compromise for holding “inclusive” national election. Following the CEC’s declaration of election schedule that has apparently closed doors for negotiations unless some extraordinary initiatives are undertaken, India’s role has become a major subject of speculation.

The nation is now literally in prayers for that extraordinary initiative.  The dangers of an election without compromise have been graphically etched out on the country’s political canvass through the violence seen following the BNP’s blockade call after the election schedule was announced. Earlier, the people watched one after another their hopes dashed on the compromise. It was the UN Secretary General who had first raised hopes when he called both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia to encourage them to hold discussions for a compromise. Their hopes were raised again when the US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote letters on the same line to the two leaders. China and other friends of Bangladesh also joined the efforts of the UN Secretary General and the US Secretary of State.

The people watched in despair as the AL led government turned a deaf ear to these requests from friendly quarters. They were curious to find out the reason for such a stand from the government. As they asked questions of one another, they realized that India had remained as the only friendly government that had not joined the United States, China, the UN and other countries in urging the ruling party and the BNP to negotiate and find a way out because they felt the consequences of a failure to do so would be catastrophic for Bangladesh. In fact, when US Ambassador went to New Delhi for what was a very unusual visit, newspapers speculated that the Indians were not on the same page with the United States on the nature of election time government in Bangladesh meaning that while the US was backing a compromise, India was backing the AL for election without the BNP.

India joined in the concerns of the other friends of Bangladesh eventually. The Indian High Commissioner went to the media and stated that he was in consultation with the other Embassies over the political situation in Bangladesh. People were relieved to hear that from the Indian High Commissioner, as they believed that because of the closeness between New Delhi and the AL led Government, it was India that could encourage the AL led government to find the negotiated settlement out of the present crisis. The news that President Obama and Manmohon Singh had met and had agreed that the two countries would coordinate positions on Bangladesh raised people’s hopes even further.

The Prime Minister’s call to Begum Khaleda Zia further raised the hopes of the people.  Although that did not produce the result, the people next hoped that the coordination of position between USA and India would be visible when the US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal visited Dhaka. That also did not happen. In fact, the Government ended the hopes of the people for a negotiated settlement right in the middle of her visit. The Prime Minister went to the President and recommended to him for election under the 15th Amendment or election without the BNP immediately after the Assistant Secretary in her meeting with her had requested her for  “inclusive” national election, a request that the US Secretary of State had earlier made to her and Begum Khaleda Zia in letters addressed to both.

The Prime Minister, while recommending to the President election under the 15th Amendment, maintained that she had made efforts to encourage the BNP for negotiations by her telephone call. The Prime Minister also maintained that her offer to BNP to join the All-Party government was further proof that she had tried to negotiate with the opposition.  Some people blamed the BNP for not taking up the offer for talks made through the phone call but the general feeling was that the effort was not genuine enough to bring the BNP to election. However, the formation of the All-Party Government and its nature left the people no other choice but to conclude that the ruling party was determined to hold elections without the BNP. The way former President HM Ershad and his party joined the controversial All-Party Government took away the little element of credibility that the All-Party Government was anything the government claimed.
The formation of the All-Party Government was followed by the announcement of the election schedule.

The conduct of the CEC in announcing the schedule added further suspicion in the opposition on the intent of the government.  The CEC came before the media and stated that the announcement of the schedule would be held back for the ruling party and the BNP to negotiate. The next day, he addressed the nation and announced the schedule without explaining what happened to the negotiations between the AL and the BNP with which he had raised people’s expectations. These developments left the people frustrated, disappointed and apprehensive. Quite naturally, the public wanted to know where the ruling party was getting the strength to go against countries of critical importance to Bangladesh and also public opinion in the country.  When the BNP leaders stated in public that the strength was coming from India, they only articulated what was in the minds of a great majority of the people of the country.

The conclusion that India’s backing has given the AL led Government the strength to turn a deaf ear to pleadings and urgings made sense because its interests in Bangladesh are quite different from those of other friends of Bangladesh. Bangladesh holds one of the major keys to India’s security interests. Bangladesh also holds the key to the future of India’s fragile seven provinces that border Bangladesh. India has succeeded in furthering its security concerns to a large extent but not entirely and has genuine hopes of getting land transit. But for that, New Delhi would need the AL to be in power for another term.

India’s desire for AL to return to power is therefore understandable. However, the choice for India is not that simple. There is also another dimension to India’s predicament. People are convinced that it is India alone that can encourage the AL led government to resolve the political stalemate and hold “inclusive” national election. Therefore, if the ruling party went ahead and held the one-party election, India that has become unpopular to almost the whole of Bangladesh over its failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals and killings of innocent people on Bangladesh-India border would also be held responsible for the catastrophe that is sure to occur in Bangladesh as a consequence of holding elections without the BNP, the preview of which is already visible.

India has before it the same opportunity to befriend Bangladesh as it had done in 1971 by supporting the Bangladesh liberation war. By encouraging a one-party election, India would end up losing all the gains it had made with the AL government because the civil disturbances currently under way dangerously are certain to intensify manifold with AL’s attempt to return to power by elections without the BNP. These disturbances are likely to make the country fertile for terrorists and insurgents to regroup and cause India nightmarish security concerns. Therefore, India really has just one choice in Bangladesh as its High Commissioner has said let the people of Bangladesh decide. The people of Bangladesh would expect that India would not strengthen the hand of any of the political parties in the country.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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